by Megan McGee
Five years ago, a small group of people purchased a piece of land just outside Louisa, VA, intending to form a community, education center and farm with a mission: to demonstrate that it’s possible to live happily and healthily without the use of fossil fuels. Today, that vision has manifested as Living Energy Farm (LEF), an income-sharing community and organic farm that runs on sustainable technologies such as photovoltaics, green building, and the vital “technology” of cooperative living. Its members have begun efforts to make those technologies, and the skills to use them, accessible to low-income communities worldwide.
“The goal is to produce our own food and energy, instead of serving the one percent,” says Debbie, one of the founding members of LEF. LEF produces all of its own electricity with photovoltaics, uses solar cookers and a rocket stove for cooking, and uses solar for space and water heating. They are working to convert their tractors to run on a biofuel called woodgas, which does not compete with humans or animals for food. And the community grows the majority of their own food, preserving the harvest by drying and canning.
“Food has been a bigger part of it than we expected,” Debbie explains. While most of the vegetables they eat are picked right before use, they plan to build a root cellar for food storage, as well as a solar ammonia loop ice maker, a technology developed for the third world, which makes a block of ice on a 24-hour cycle without electronics or moving parts.
One of the most important aspects of the project has been creating a system that can be replicated all over the world. “We wanted to figure out what is a sustainable lifestyle that everyone can afford,” says Debbie.
A lot of the technologies LEF uses have been designed for third-world countries. In the third world, people understand the importance of depending on each other, which is at the heart of making sustainable technology work. Debbie explains that solar energy is not truly cost-efficient on the individual or industrial level, but on the village level. “For this technology to work, it needs to be shared,” she says.
Getting out this message has been a challenge for LEF, as being dependent on others is not a popular idea in the U.S. “In America, it’s seen as a sign of weakness,” says Debbie. “Success is having your own house, you own car.”
LEF hosts interns and volunteers who want to learn the skills necessary for modern sustainable living. One of those volunteers is Nick, who is currently visiting the United States from Kenya. Back home, Nick runs a nonprofit organization called Africa Transforming Lives, which focuses on providing children with the financial assistance they need to go to school. He came to America to find new financial new partners, and has now come to Living Energy Farm to learn about organic farming. By sharing these skills with families in Kenya, he believes he can give parents the self-sufficiency necessary to send their kids to school.
“It’s about re-finding Kenya’s communal heritage that was depressed by colonialism,” Nick says.
Of all the places he has visited in America, Nick says LEF and other intentional communities are most similar to the communal culture in his country. He has been impressed by the kind of energy they use and how it involves working together. Along with members of LEF and their new project known as Living Energy Global Initiative, Nick aims to create a replica of LEF in his village. His first goal is to build a training center there where people can learn about sustainable technologies and acquire the skills to use them. For example, Nick explains, the rocket stove LEF uses is more energy efficient than the open fires people use in Kenya. In fact, one idea he has for people to become financially self-sufficient is to help them start businesses building these stoves.
Through the use of organic farming methods, Nick says people in his village will be growing food free from chemicals, making them less likely to get cancer. By using LEF’s system for electricity and pumping water, they will not be contributing to climate change, an issue about which Nick is concerned.
Debbie and other members of LEF plan to help Nick fundraise for his training center by presenting slideshows in Richmond, VA and other nearby cities. Nick hopes to have volunteers from other countries come to Kenya to help build the center, and eventually to help teach once the center is operating. To learn more about this or to find out how to donate to the project, visit Nick’s website at http://africatransforming.wix.com/africatransforming.
Right now, Living Energy Farm is at work building infrastructure for more members. Once they have completed the living quarters currently being built, they will have eight bedrooms in addition to the cabin on the land, and will have room for two or three families and a few single people. “We’re probably gonna stay pretty small,” Debbie says. Once they have a core membership, they want to focus on using their experience to help low-income communities in the United States and beyond build sustainable infrastructure, rather than making LEF bigger.
They are also focused on the seed business which is the main source of income for LEF. This involves growing vegetables and selling the seeds to companies invested in providing gardeners with non-GMO seeds. Debbie explains that these seeds are very important for local self-sufficiency, as a lot of the seeds farmers currently use have not been adapted organically and need chemicals in order to grow. The companies for which LEF grows test for GMO contamination, and the community’s seeds have tested GMO-free for several years.
Debbie believes income sharing is extremely beneficial to making communities like Living Energy Farm work because there are so many ways each person can contribute in such a system. “While some people do farming,” she says, “someone can watch the kids and someone else can cook.”